Theresa Sitterhorn sat at a small table on the patio overlooking the market district, smoking one Virginia Slim after another, scanning the Chinese urbanites hurrying along the sidewalks. It was lunchtime. People in smart looking suits chatted and texted on their phones, swinging their busy arms. Huge columns of curved glass and steel packed the skyline, reflecting a flat, blue sky. Theresa sucked on her cigarette and studied the passing faces. She did this often now, and each time it got harder to convince herself she wasn’t crazy.
A Diet Coke clacked against the glass table, scaring her half to death. The waitress.
Theresa straightened her back, flicked ashes. “My guest will be here in a minute.”
The waitress walked off. A gentleman in tan slacks and a black Polo shirt wandered among the tables. Theresa crushed out the cig and waved off the smoke in a hurry. “Detective Catlin?”
He turned to her and smiled. “Rob Catlin, Miss Sitterhorn. Pleased to meet you.”
The waitress reappeared as they made small talk. Catlin ordered a coffee and gave her a quick summary of his background. He was from D.C., a detective who had retired early and spent some time traveling abroad before settling in Hong Kong. He had started a private practice and took a few cases a year to pad his savings a little. Now he set a notebook in front of him, folded his hands, and leveled his eyes with hers. “I have to admit, I was reluctant to meet you. I’m not a psychiatrist.”
“I know that,” Theresa said.
“But then I thought, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to hear this. Maybe I can help give you some peace of mind.”
Theresa sighed and said nothing.
“When was the last time you saw your mother?”
“At the wake,” she said. “Her wake. That was four years ago.”
“And where was that?”
“Do you mind if I smoke?”
He smiled again. “Not at all.”
She lit up and answered, “Middletown. North of the Hudson Valley.”
Catlin scribbled in his pad. How did she die?” he asked.
Blue smoke jetted from her nostrils before Theresa replied, “Lung cancer.”
“And how did her death make you feel?”
Theresa gave him an incredulous stare, and Catlin sat back in his chair. “Sometimes, when a person experiences a loss like that, the emotional storm can come back unexpectedly years later.”
“Detective Catlin, I’ve talked to therapists before. I’ll stop you there and save you some time. What I have seen—three times now—is not a hallucination.”
Catlin’s coffee arrived. He blew into the steaming cup and took a sip. “Your mother has no sisters, correct? No relatives that might bear a resemblance?” he asked.
She shook her head. “Then it was probably someone who just…looks like her,” he said. “It happens more often than you’d think.”
“But it wasn’t just that she looked like her—she sounded like Mother.”
“Okay, so how do you explain her reappearance in a city and country she’d never been to, four years after her death?”
“If I knew that why would I need a private investigator?”
Catlin put his pen down and gave her a hard look, an ex-cop look.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ve been sleeping badly, and all this is, well, you know…how can I not feel like I’ve lost my mind?” Her eyes drifted back to the river of bodies half-running on the sidewalk. “There is a woman out there who looks and sounds exactly like my dead mother.” Theresa lit another cigarette, exhaled. “Exactly.”
“Then, I’ll find her,” Catlin reassured her. He clicked his pen. “Start at the beginning, the night you first saw her.”
Theresa had been in Hong Kong for less than two weeks when the first sighting occurred. She was there as a consultant, retained by a home electronics start-up called Toria. They installed her in a corporate apartment two blocks from the Tsuen Wan rail line, replete with a view of a nice park with a bowl shaped water fountain and a statue of Mao Zedong. They gave her a generous stipend for exploring the city, but Theresa had little interest. She had just gone through a bitterly contested divorce and wanted only cigarettes and sleep. Three weeks ago, she’d awoken at midnight and couldn’t get back to sleep, so she got dressed and went for a walk.
Tsuen Wan was the most prosperous district in Hong Kong. The streets were jacked with open air markets and bustling cafes. Theresa strolled down Avenue C, where jazz clubs lay nestled under the streets. Halfway down the street, she heard something that stopped her cold. Someone was singing “Tennessee Waltz,” someone who sounded exactly like her mother. Her voice lifted on the same accents, and tripped on the same notes her mother could never quite reach. Theresa went to the doorway of the club, and peeked inside, and….
“You saw her.” Catlin paused in his note taking.
“It was a cramped, renovated playhouse. The kind that attracts middle-aged men who drink bourbon in silence.” Theresa took a drag on her smoke and went on. “She was on the stage, in the same navy dress with white ruffles that she was buried in.”
“Did she look sick?”
Theresa shook her head. “No, she looked great. Her hands were folded together behind the microphone stand and her hair was pulled back tight. She sang with her eyes closed. When she opened them, we were staring at each other. And I fainted.”
“What happened after that?”
“I was lying on the floor with a bunch of excited Chinamen jabbering around me. I got to my feet, but my mother was gone. I tried asking around the playhouse, but no one spoke English. My Cantonese is hopeless.”
Catlin smiled and nodded. “It gets easier.”
“I got someone from work to go down there—just to find out what her name was—but the bar was closed for renovations.” She sighed. “So, like any sane person, I decided that my eyes and ears had tricked me. But then I saw her again at the International Food Market. Actually, she saw me first, or at least I thought so. She stared right at me with this strange look on her face. She recognized me, but something was different about her.” Theresa felt herself choking up. She bit down on her lower lip.
Catlin reached over and touched her arm. “Take your time,” he said.
Theresa took a long, quivering breath. “She ran out, and I couldn’t catch her. The last time I saw her was a few days ago, on the train. She was on the eastbound, heading toward Tsim Sha Tsui, and I was on the west. Our windows faced each other for about thirty seconds before we went in opposite directions.” She crushed her cigarette like a bug. “I can guess how many times you’ve heard the words ‘I know how crazy this sounds, detective’ in your career, but I will not be patronized. My mother is alive. And she’s here in Hong Kong.”
Catlin put his notebook away. “I’ll start with the bar,” he said. “Even if it’s closed there’s still a property manager I can call. I’ll find out who you saw.” He pushed a business card across the table. “In the meantime, I want you to call me the very second you see her, if you do see her again. And write down any other details you remember.”
Theresa stared at the business card, willing herself not to say what she was about to say. “Do you think I’m crazy?”
“No,” he replied, getting up. “But I would think you were crazy if you didn’t ask me that.”
“I almost didn’t.”
He smiled. “Have a good day, Miss Sitterhorn.”
She didn’t hear back from Catlin for almost two weeks. Theresa was annoyed. She had expected to hear from him within days, even though he’d given no indication that would happen. She decided to give him two more days before firing him. He called her on day two.
“Her name is Edna Willoughby,” he said right off. “She’s a retired jazz singer from London, who came to China on a missionary project. She’s an associate minister at the Congregational Church in Northampton. Has four boys, all grown. I got all this from the bar manager, who went on vacation in the Philippines once the renovations started. That’s why it took me so long to get back to you. Edna was their part-time lounge singer. She quit and left her apartment on Rose Wood. The neighbors believe she went back to London. There is no forwarding address.”
“I see,” said Theresa, stirring a cup of black Asian tea. She stared through the glass wall of her office at the curved monoliths of concrete, steel, and glass. Frantic development in a frantic country. “Is that all you have for me after two weeks?” she asked.
“I apologize for not calling sooner. I had a few other engagements that took me out of town last week. I should’ve told you.”
Fingering the pack of cigarettes in her purse, Theresa left her tea and hurried to an elevator. “So what you are telling me is there is no connection between this woman and me.”
“None that I can find, ma’am.”
“Then how can you explain her reaction to seeing me in the market? She recognized me. I could see it in her eyes.”
“The only explanation I can think of is that she recognized you from that night at the bar.”
Theresa exited the swinging glass doors in the lobby and popped a smoke between her burgundy lips. She blew smoke at the world, seething with contempt.
“I can track her down. If that’s what you want.” Catlin said, reading her silence. “But I have to say, Miss Sitterhorn, that I’m not real sure what I can do for you here.”
“I want to speak to her,” Theresa said. “One time. That’s all I want.”
Silence on the other end.
“One time,” she repeated. “Your name will never be used.” She thought some more, and added, “I will pay you three thousand extra if you can arrange it.”
Rob Catlin agreed to book a flight to London.
Theresa sat at her laptop with a bottle of wine and a package of Twizzlers. She munched the braided candy and searched for Edna Willoughby. There were no listings in Tsuen Wan or any of the surrounding towns, nor were there any current listings in London. She went to peoplefinder.com, searched, and found several people by that name, but all were the wrong age.
She finished her third glass of wine and Googled doppelganger, which, according to Wikipedia, is “the ghostly double of a person, a sinister form of bilocation.” By the time she finished the bottle she’d learned that bilocation, the ability of a person–or spirit—to appear to be in two separate places at the same time, is referenced in a variety of religious and philosophical belief systems, many of based on mysticism and magic. Theresa had always thought such stuff to be nonsense, but she was drunk enough to be fascinated. She scrolled down the sites and read, as two competing truths warred inside her head: one was that her mother was dead (Theresa herself had placed a single red rose on the coffin before the first shovelful of dirt fell in); the other was that the woman she’d seen in Hong Kong was her mother. Certain things were true in your heart, no matter how impossible. Her mother was dead. And alive.
She lay on the couch, staring at the ceiling until she drifted off to sleep. Her dreams fluttered and snapped like fresh sheets in the wind.
The air smells like summer, ripe with fragrant lilies and freshly mown grass. Her mother pulls her father’s damp shirts from a plastic basket and hangs them on the clothesline. She pauses to drag from her cigarette. Her fingertips brush the bruised swelling below her eye, and she flinches.
“Momma, will you skip rope with me?”
“Not now, sweetie. No time. Your Poppa has to work tonight, and he needs fresh clothes.”
“You always say that.”
“It’s always true. Work comes first.”
“Can I help?” Theresa asks.
She smiles. “You can help by finishing your homework, so you can get a good job someday. Your hands should be writing and doing math, not hanging sheets and skivvies. Get your work done, then we can play.”
Theresa knows it won’t happen. By the time the homework is finished, her mother will be on to the next thing. There is always more work to do.
The next evening, Theresa walked to the part of town where there are no names on the storefronts. She scanned the numbers on the doors, found the one she’d read about on the Internet. She walked into a cramped antique bookshop. Talismans adorned the place. Hanging from the ceiling and propped on the shelves were an assortment of amulets, charms, and ceramic idols. The stench of incense nearly choked her as she closed the door.
A short, skinny man with a long, white goatee sat behind the counter to her left. A stick of incense lay on a tray beside him, smoldering in the dim light. “Help you?” the man asked in a thin, reedy voice.
“Yes,” Theresa managed before coughing into her cupped palm. “Can you direct me to any books about bilocation?”
“Bilocation…” he repeated. “As in a Vardoger or poltergeist?”
“How about physical bilocation?”
The storekeepers eyes widened in the dim smoky light. “What you need this for?” He leaned over the counter. “You know someone in two places at once? Someone deceased?”
“It’s kind of nuts, I know,” she said, feeling silly. “It’s my mother, who passed away years ago.”
“You see her? Here?”
“I’ve seen her three times,” Theresa said. “She was singing at a jazz club downtown, and then-”
The shopkeeper’s hands flew up. He hissed something in Chinese and came around the counter. He took her arm, and whispered in her ear. “Not here. Come!”
He led her between rows of leather bound titles. They reached a wooden door at the end of the isle. The shopkeeper let them into a small room with a chalk circle drawn with Chinese symbols on the concrete floor and an assortment of feather and bone ornaments hanging from the ceiling. The shopkeeper scampered around, lighting candle nubs half melted to the floor while Theresa burned with questions. Finally, he invited her into the circle.
“Your mouth put us in danger,” he whispered. “Only speak of them here. Nowhere else!”
“Who are they?”
“The Undelivered,” he whispered with a shiver. “You hear of transference of the spirit? Ghosts? Souls that remain on Earth before moving on, you know this?”
“Some people experience transference of the body, as well,” he said. “After death, they pass into the ground and reappear in another part of the world–body and soul. They live like you and me, but they are not alive. They come to finish their work so they can go to the grave in peace.”
“What work?” Theresa asked. “My mother worked hard her entire life.” A wave of unreality swept over her like vertigo. Could she really be having this conversation?
“She has more work to do, dear. Different work.” the old man said gently. “She was chosen because she passed too early in life, or because her soul carries too much pain to leave the body. No matter—she is here for a reason, and you cannot interfere. Bad things happen to those who do.”
“But she’s my mother. I have to talk to her.”
The shopkeeper placed his hand on her arm. “Maybe you have work to do,” he said, tapping a finger on her chest, over her heart. “Do it alone. Do not approach your mother and do not tell anyone what you’ve seen! My name is Jin. I am a cleric and I have special protection from them, but you do not. Undelivered listen always and they will protect the secret of their existence at all costs. It’s never safe to speak of them outside of here.” He motioned to the ring in which they stood.
“What happens if they find out I know about them?”
The old man knelt down and blew out a candle.
Theresa sits in her Mazda 3 and presses her hand to the horn, joining the cacophony of toots and shouts in the bottleneck. She checks her watch. Quarter to one. She should be in Manhattan now, prepping for the Tiffany pitch. Winning the business would net them fifteen million in agency fees and commissions over the next three years. It would be a huge coup that could catapult her near the top of a very deep food chain. But instead of prepping for the biggest appointment of her career, she’s sitting in traffic with her car aimed at Hoboken. She can see the goddamned exit from her windshield, but no cars are moving.
Her cell phone rings. Probably Jack Renauld wanting to know where she is. But when she sees the number, her stomach drops. “Hi, Kate,”she says.
“Theresa,” Kate replies curtly.
“How is she?” Theresa asks.
“Hard to say. She’s rebounded from this morning, but her breathing is very shallow. Where are you?”
“Stuck on the turnpike. I’m looking at Exit 6, but looking is about all I can do right now.”
“Okay,” Kate says, her voice softening with the knowledge that Doris’s self-important daughter is, in fact, on her way home. “She’ll be here when you get here.”
“Do you think she’ll hang on for a while? I’ve got a presentation to make in Manhattan in two hours.”
“I’d cancel it.”
“Can’t.” Theresa lights a cigarette and rolls down the window.
Kate scoffs. “Your mother is dying, Theresa. Come and tell her you love her. If you don’t, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life. Is work that important, really?”
“People are depending on me, Kate. People with families to feed.”
“Besides, she was never around for me. Ask where she was during my high school graduation, or my wedding, or my—”
“I suppose your father had nothing to do with that. Why is it that the abusive alcoholic always gets a pass from you kids?”
Theresa pitches the smoke out the window. “Shut the hell up about my father. You don’t know him, and you don’t know me. You may be Mom’s friend, but you’re just hired help to me. Stick to your business—caring for my mother.”
“Fine. Do what you want.”
“You will see me soon,” Theresa says, calmer now. “No later than six. I promise.”
She hangs up, swings the car into an illegal U-turn, and heads back toward New York.
Theresa sat on her patio, sipping a glass of wine, enjoying the cool breeze and the snow white lilacs in the park. Children pranced around the statue and the hedges in the garden path. It was a beautiful night, and she had an uncharacteristic serenity about her. Last night she’d dreamt about the day her mother passed away, and that single memory, so fresh and sharp in her mind, made all the worry about her mother being alive seem absurd. There could be no transference of body or spirit. No bilocation. Doris Sitterhorn had passed away at four o’clock in the afternoon on September 13, 2007. Theresa hadn’t made it in time. Her mother was there and then she was gone. Dead is dead.
“My mother is gone,” she confirmed aloud.
It was perfectly logical that her “sightings” had been mental cramps, subconscious twitches brought on by work-related stress. And Theresa was a practical woman–she needed to put this behind her and get on with her own life. When she walked inside for a fresh bottle of wine, her landline rang.
The digital answering machine picked up. “Aaaaah, Teeereeca. It’s Jin from the bookshop. Very important! I think—“
She punched the mute button, silencing any more nonsense from that old hack. Theresa picked up a pen and paper, and sat at the dining room table. She began a letter to her mother, listening to the kids playing in the park. Happy, laughing, joyful sounds. She finished the letter, tucked it in an envelope. Then she found her checkbook and scribbled her first and last payment to Detective Robert Catlin. She dialed him on her cell, leaving a message asking if he could meet her tomorrow evening to settle her account. After she hung up, she went to bed and fell into a dreamless, restful sleep. The first in awhile.
Catlin was waiting for her. He sat at the bar, wearing a brown tweed suit coat, blue jeans, and cowboy boots. Theresa saw him from across the crowded restaurant. She dodged a waiter, who ran past with a hissing and spitting platter, and made her way over.
“Welcome home,” she said, dropping her purse on the bar.
“You have no idea how good this cheeseburger is going to taste. The English can’t butter toast without messing it up,” Catlin replied without turning away from the TV. The news was on. Theresa read the subtitles and saw there’d been a freak accident in the subway terminal yesterday. Someone had fallen on the tracks and hit a speeding train—killed instantly. She said, “You shouldn’t watch the news too much. It might deaden your sensibilities.”
He sipped his whiskey, and faced her. His eyes sagged and beard stubble peppered his face. “How are you, Miss Sitterhorn?”
“Theresa,” she corrected. “I’m fine. Great, actually. You could say I’ve had an epiphany.”
“Really. Do tell,” he shifted in his seat, knocked back the whiskey, and flagged the bartender for another. He ordered a Chardonnay for her. “What did this divine leap of understanding tell you?”
“That I should be in a padded cell, playing checkers.”
Catlin laughed. The bartender brought their drinks and they raised them together. “I guess this means I’m fired.”
“Indeed, you are,” Theresa smiled back and clinked his glass. “But I will suspend my sanity long enough to hear what you found in London.”
“Well, I found Edna Willoughby, and surprise, surprise–she doesn’t look anything like your mother.” He twirled the ice in his glass and sighed. “Either the bar owner deliberately gave me the wrong person or he was confused. Damn language barrier always gets in the way. When I was on the force in D.C. I could work around it, but it was mostly Spanish there.”
Theresa sipped her wine, and then she allowed herself a little frankness. “I’m not exactly wowed by your skills, detective.”
“Your right. I should’ve ordered you a better glass. How about a bottle of Bordeaux Dimones?”
“No, no, hear me out,” she said, suppressing a smile. “You could’ve saved us both a lot of time with some brutal honesty. You can’t find a person who doesn’t exist.”
Catlin thought about this and nodded. “You were so insistent that it was her. I’ve seen some amazing things in my life, and, well, it was worth turning over a few stones.” He sighed. “I’ve done this job for thirty-seven years. I think maybe it’s time for me to face a reality of my own.” He smiled at her then, and she smiled back. “What are you going to do?” he asked.
“Me?” Theresa tossed her hair off her shoulders and gazed dreamily into her wine. “I’m finished with Hong Kong. I’ll probably go home for a while. My real home, in Middletown. Get some snow on my boots and look up old friends. What about you? What are your plans?”
“Nothing quite that grand,” he laughed. “I’ve still got a place back in D.C. A cozy little spot at Rock Creek. I’d really like to go home and watch the flowers grow.”
“Rock Creek…” The smile disappeared from Theresa’s face. Where had she heard that name before?
Catlin frowned a little. “I say something wrong?”
Theresa shook her head quickly, suppressing a shiver. “No, it’s just…I worked in D.C. once, and I was trying to remember Rock Creek. Never mind.” Theresa motioned at his ring. “And your wife? Any plans to see her, if I may be so bold to ask?”
Catlin shook his head. “We said goodbye five years ago. Some doors are better left closed, you know?”
“Oh believe me, I know.” Theresa’s hand dipped into her purse, pulled out some bills for the bartender. “This is for you,” she said, sliding his check to him across the counter. “Consider it a going away present,” she said.
They stood. “Safe travels, detective,” she said. “Enjoy your cheeseburger.”
“Indeed I will. Be well, Theresa.” They shook hands, and Theresa stepped out into the night.
Halfway home, she still hadn’t shaken the feeling that something wasn’t right. Her chest felt tight and she was short of breath. What was it about Rock Creek that made her so uneasy?
She let herself into her apartment. She kept the lights off, sitting down at the computer and lighting a smoke. The nicotine calmed her a little, but her head was still in the restaurant with Catlin. I’ve still got a place back in D.C. A cozy little spot at Rock Creek. Theresa had taken on a client in D.C. many years ago, a food service outfit that delivered meals to all the local colleges and universities. She still remembered the layout of the city pretty well. Where the hell was Rock Creek?
She startled her computer screen to life. She Googled ‘Rob Catlin, detective, Washington D.C.’ Then waited while the search results populated on the screen.
Some doors are better left closed.
The results spilled across the page just as the memory of Rock Creek surfaced. In her mind’s eye, she stood outside the entrance on North Capital Street, where a black iron sign arches over the east lawn. White, chalky headstones poke out of the trim green. Clusters of hedges curve around the summer pines, and over the hill the church steeple fires skyward like a shooting star.
Rock Creek was a cemetery.
Theresa clicked on the obituary and looked at Detective Rob Catlin as he will always remain in his family’s memory—thinner, a touch more hair, a warm smile on his face.
“Oh God…” she breathed. In the stark glow of the computer screen her face was whiter than coastal fog. She snuffed out her smoke on the edge of the table, missing the ashtray completely. She stamped on the sparks and looked at the blinking red light on her voicemail box. The message light flashed in angry red bursts in the dark.
Jin’s message from two nights ago. She touched the playback button. “Aaaaah, Teeereeca. It’s Jin from the bookshop. When you leave my shop last night I see a man follow you. He look about sixty years old, bald, suit coat. Did you talk to someone about what we discuss? I tell you–talk to NO ONE! Just today, they kill a man at the train station because he knew about them! You come to my shop. Hurry!”
A cold hand fell on Theresa’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Miss Sitterhorn.”
Theresa screamed and spun around. Catlin’s face was cold and expressionless in the dim blue-white light. Other people stood behind him. Blank, pale faces with eyes that didn’t move. None of them ghosts. None of them truly alive.
“I tried to misdirect you. Tried to turn you away,” Catlin said. “It’s unfortunate you persisted.”
“What is this!” Theresa whimpered. “What are you doing here!”
“I shouldn’t have mentioned my other home. My final home. I wouldn’t have spoken of it if I’d known you’d been there. You were so close to believing this was all your imagination, but then you discovered the truth.” Catlin extended his hand. “Come now. We cannot allow the living to know about us. And besides, you have work to do.”
“NO, DON’T! NO! PLEASE–”
The group of them carried her to the balcony. She scratched and slapped at their faces, but their flesh was hard as steel. They hoisted her over the edge. Theresa screamed all the way down, though she never made a sound.
The next morning, someone in the park spotted her broken, twisted body in the stone fountain and an ambulance arrived. Arrangements were made to deliver Theresa Sitterhorn back to the United States. The police retrieved a letter the deceased had written to her mother, also deceased. She had left it on the kitchen table. The contents revealed a lonely, distraught person tormented by guilt over not visiting her mother as she died from cancer. “I was so consumed with my job, I never came,” Theresa had written. “Now, my only real work is finding joy in life. I miss you, Mom.”
Shoe tracks belonging to several people found all over the apartment suggested the possibility of a homicide, but there were nine other mysterious deaths in the docket and the D.A. was eager to move on. The letter indicated a suicide, so that’s what went into the report. Detective Rob Catlin handed the file to his assistant, Doris Sitterhorn.
A distant pain flickered for a moment as she looked at her daughter’s file. “Get your work done, sweetheart,” she said. “Then we’ll have some time together at last.” She sealed the file, mailed it with the certificate of death, and went on with her work. It was going to be a productive day.